Every three months the New Zealand Police release a map showing the ratio of drugs found through wastewater testing across Aotearoa.
By Baz Macdonald
In most of the country methamphetamine dominates. In quarter four of 2021, meth represented almost 100% of drugs found in Northern Waikato.
But down south, it’s a different story.
In 2020, MDMA represented 95% of drugs present in Dunedin’s wastewater.
Dunedin students say the drug has become so common that people give it to each other as birthday presents and are taking it before going out to dinner at restaurants.
Otago University student and local music producer Nick Guilford said MDMA used to be mostly contained to a niche of people who would party at festivals and electronic music events.
But as drum and bass has become more popular in Dunedin, so has MDMA, Guilford said.
As it has become more mainstream, Guilford said it has been integrated into portions of the student population that celebrate binge culture.
“There is how many bongs you can smoke, how much piss you can drink, but also how much gear you can take,” Guilford said.
Wastewater testing shows MDMA use has gone up 40% in the last three years in the Southern region.
Jai Whelan is a PhD student at Otago University who is studying MDMA culture in New Zealand.
Whelan said the majority of people he has interviewed are being reasonable with their usage, and the problems coming from this rise in popularity are due to poor education about the drug and safe usage.
“For the most part, people should be drug checking more, they should be checking out what their substance is,” Whelan said.
Almost a quarter of MDMA samples tested last year by drug checking organisation Know Your Stuff were actually synthetic cathinones, commonly known as bath salts.
While the effect of bath salts can be similar to MDMA, they’re much more potent. This increases the chance of overdose when users don’t know which substance they are taking.
Other issues arising include MDMA users drinking too much water, or not enough, and hyperthermia (getting too hot).
But Whelan said the biggest issue is about how frequently young people are taking MDMA.
“There is a rule floating around the internet that it is at the absolute max recommended, if it were to be recommended, that three months is a good time to wait [between usage],” Whelan said.
“However, people are going to do it more than that. I’ve had people say on a big week they might do it multiple times that week. But they’re mindful that on that last day, it is barely working, if at all.”
MDMA is a party drug that works by flooding the body with serotonin, a chemical that regulates your mood.
When the brain is full of serotonin, it often makes the person feel elated, energetic and happy, as well as heightened feelings of empathy and connectedness with others.
For many people, this is followed by a comedown - a post-use crash where the person can feel depressed, tired and anxious for days after use.
A theory for comedowns is that MDMA depletes serotonin levels, and the comedown is the period it takes to replenish.
However, using MDMA too often has been associated with long term impacts on memory, concentration, and mood.